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Then the motor was started, the machine ran along the ground, gathered speed, until finally, all of a sudden, at right angles, it rose slowly, in the stiff and almost static ecstasy of horizontal speed suddenly transformed into majestic, vertical ascent. 27 In this beautifully precise passage of flight, Proust fixes upon the sudden shift from the horizontal plane, that zone which contains mundane, banal and habitual, to the vertical, representing the new dimension of freedom, vision and will. 29 After it has taken to the air, the narrator watches the plane 40 diminish to the size of ‘an almost indistinct speck’ [‘un point presque indistinct’] and then, in due course, grow again; so that at the point of landing it has reacquired the volume, the shape, the dimension that it began to lose as it made the shift from one space to the next.

The rest of his 32 essay proceeds with the verve of a writer of science fiction, as he argues that the airport is an area on which future structures, conditions and patterns of behaviour are tested out; a contingent place, the physical limits of its expansion yet to be decided. Ballard looks forward to seeing at Heathrow, ‘the new terminal 5, and beyond that … terminals 6 and 7, and the transformation of Britain into the ultimate departure lounge’, and describes ‘747 tailplanes … cruis[ing] the tarmac like the fins of amiable sharks’.

Kennedy airport in New York: a vision which would take nearly eight hundred generations to be realised. The world’s most famous terminal building, Eero Saarinen’s great concrete bird at John F. Kennedy International Airport, is indeed cavernous, consisting of four intersecting barrel vaults, each separated from the other by narrow strip skylights; it is also almost primitive in its decor. The entire interior was originally finished in whitewash, but its carpets, signage and detailing were carmine – TWA’s corporate colour – a crimson pigment 30 made from cochineal, the dried bodies of female insects raised on Mexican cactus.

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